FAYETTEVILLE – Given his plight after Arkansas’ first game last season, Tuesday’s first preseason practice in full pads marks a celebration for Dorian Gerald.
Arkansas’ senior third-year junior college defensive end wondered for a bit if he would ever play football again after a rare bruised neck artery ended his 2019 Razorbacks one game into the campaign.
“You know, in the beginning, right when it happened, I thought it was,” Gerald said after Monday’s practice if he thought last year’s injury would be career ending. “But you know the doctors came in and they told me it’s not a career-ending type of injury. I just had to be out because I was on blood thinners.”
Still, it’s taken a group effort to return and under a new staff with new Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman, new defensive coordinator Barry Odom and new defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc.
“The recovery process has been really good,” Gerald said. “My trainers have made it really easy for me getting back and adjusting. The coaches have been very understanding. It’s been really good.”
Apparently Gerald has been really good, too. Given the reported observations from the brief media opening for Monday’s otherwise closed practice conducted in shoulder pads and shorts, Gerald, and new junior college transfer Julius Coates are the first-team defensive ends and Xavier Kelly, the graduate transfer from Clemson, and returning senior Jonathan Marshall the first-team defensive tackles.
“ I mean I love the new guys we’ve got in there in addition to the guys we’ve got,” Gerald said. “Julius, he’s a freak. J. Marsh (always among Arkansas’ physically strongest players )we all know has been a freak and it’s starting to come together for him. And Xavier, he’s huge and he’s really good too. He’s really quick twitch for being such a big guy. I really like our D-line.”
And he likes LeBlanc and Odom.
“No knock to anyone last year, but it’s a lot more technical now,” Gerald said. “It’s a lot more detailed, a lot more specific. Everything is attention to detail. Like small things. Foot work, everything. I think Coach LeBlanc is doing a great job of coaching us. I didn’t personally get this much coaching in my first two years here.”
Senior left offensive tackle Myron Cunningham, a second-year junior college transfer, was asked about practicing against newcomers Coates and Kelly.
“”I go against Julius just about every day at practice,” Cunningham said. “He’s very twitchy, and for how big he is, he’s got a lot of speed and he’s very athletic on the edge. Xavier I go against here and there. He’s just very powerful, very powerful, very twitchy off the ball. He’s just a big body inside.”
Cunningham and the offensive line experienced Monday what Arkansas offensive linemen last experienced 2013-2015. They were coached by Sam Pittman. With offensive line coach Brad Davis medically sidelined for a bit by what a UA spokesman described as a preexisting condition, Pittman coached the O-line Monday.
Pittman actually recruited and coached Davis when Pittman coached the Oklahoma Sooners offensive line. On his way to coaching offensive lines at Portland State, James Madison, East Carolina, North Texas, Florida, and Missouri, Davis served as Pittman’s grad assistant when Pittman coached North Carolina’s offensive line.
“ Him and Davis kind of share some of the same qualities,”Cunningham said. “So it’s not that big of a change. It’s always good to have someone out there, especially when your coach isn’t out there, to reiterate some of the things that he thinks.”
Cunningham was asked about the offensive line’s progress through four practices, two with no pads and Friday and Monday in shoulder pads, going into Tuesday’s first full pads contact.
“I think we’re doing good right now,” Cunningham said. “I think we’ve still got a little bit of ways to go, and we’ve got some time. But I think we’re going to be good come season time. We’re going to be a lot better just because of the added size and added strength.”
Upon his December arrival Pittman stressed the Hogs must build their O-line bigger.
It shows, defensive end Gerald said from practicing against them.
“I definitely know this year they’re a lot tougher,” Gerald said. “They’re a lot more physical. They’re stronger. Everyone’s bigger. I think it’s going to be a big difference.”
Receivers Trey Knox and Tyson Morris and defensive backs Jalen Catalon and Jarques McClellion, not seen when media last glimpsed practice last Wednesday, practiced Monday.
Receiver Koilan Jackson and graduate transfer linebacker Levi Draper were not seen during Monday’s brief media viewing.